There will be time to murder and create,
And time for all the works and days of hands
That lift and drop a question on your plate..
For me, time for revisions, and to notice how a minute has been enough to reverse visions seemingly granted and decisions apparently taken.
I have alluded to inspiration from seminars in previous blogs (for example to Dr Helene O’Keefe’s lecture, ‘Once Removed from Revolution’, in my blog of October 15 2016, ‘Lest we remember’), but now that the season of seminars is falling into the sere, the yellow leaf, it seems a good time to reflect on the riches I’ve derived from listening to so many academics speaking on their research interests.
The first I attended was at the start of the ‘Reconsidering the Rising’ lecture series, and it was given by Dr Andy Bielenberg. Alluringly titled, ‘The Cork Spy Files: Revisiting Suspected Spies and Informers’, it proved to be an account of the findings of a hard-nosed, data-focused project. Dr Bielenberg’s rigour in assessing the value of sources reminded me of the importance of caution and balance. He prefaced the talk with a rueful, ‘You don’t make any friends working in this area’, and the first two questions from the audience furnished confirmation.
The last of the talks in the series was Dr Heather Laird’s ‘Remembering Past Futures: Commemoration and the Roads Untaken’. Heather questioned whether the decade of centenaries will undo the development of social and post-colonial approaches to Irish history, substituting for rigorous thought a state-centred historiography of the sort that distorts with a flatteringly linear narrative. She spoke of the way in which, ‘where we perceive a chain of events’, Walter Benjamin sees ‘one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage’.
To me, this rang true. I despair of the historical accounts which arrive, like a parable, all freighted with moral and teleological significance. I was particularly taken with Heather’s idea of ‘periods of potent possibility’ and found myself wondering whether commemorative periods always open up possibilities of new futures. Are they a form of dream of the past which, spoken aloud, confer a grave responsibility upon the speaker?
And should I then presume?
And how should I begin?
Well, no need to tackle the big questions just yet: so much more to imbibe from people who have done a lot of thinking over the years. For example, Kevin Whelan. He was speaking at the Honan Chapel Centenary Symposium on ‘The Irish Cultural Revival: The Context for the Honan Chapel’. There were enough gems to string a necklace in his talk but one example is his observation that the Ordnance Survey of Ireland in the 1830s helped to ‘re-enchant’ the land. My perspective had been formed by Friel and was, to me, of a piece with head-measuring and suchlike Victorian pedantry. The joy of having one’s viewpoint adjusted!
Another sparkling moment from the Centenary Symposium was Vera Ryan’s anecdote of the lace-makers of Youghal designing Irish nationalist symbols into the train for Queen Mary to wear at the Indian Durbar. The study of history so often causes us to dwell on the suffering of the human masses, and this reminder of the persistence of the human spirit and its desire for self-expression was heartening.
A masterclass on ‘The Value of Social Science to Human Existence in Hypermodernity’, organised by Dr Kieran Keohane, featured an example of a human spirit exerting itself against the current. A guest speaker, Dr John Brewer, called on his colleagues to ‘get out of the silo’. It was invigorating to hear an academic suggest that sociologists should contrive to make themselves understood rather than to appear clever. For him, social science is a vocation which entails the promotion of good in society. Hear, hear.
The Women’s History Association of Ireland organised a seminar titled ‘Barriers Removed? The 1919 Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act in Context’, and furnished a reminder of just how enduring the spirit of the ancient ‘feme covert’ law has been. Even for a woman, history so often seems to dissolve itself into what classes of men did, or endured. My research into famine roads has so far turned up accounts of the role of men, but did the women carry the stones in the 1840s, as photography tells us they did in the 1880s?
Fear of exhausting the patience of my reader prompts me to wrap up this revision of the year’s seminars. There are others that have introduced me to enticing avenues that must remain unexplored for the moment – for instance, Maureen O’Connor on the poetry of Eva Gore-Booth. I have reflected on all of these, and have changed my mind more than once about much that was said. So, just as I would crave indulgence from the speakers mentioned, should they feel misrepresented by my account, so I ask tolerance for my reactions. Who knows what I will think tomorrow, and perhaps
That is not it at all,
That is not what I meant, at all.
Eliot, T. S. ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’. Poetry: A Magazine of Verse. Ed. Harriet Monroe. (1915): 130–35.